In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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George BelmontGeorge Belmont

The showman, George Belmont, was far from an ordinary working man. Born at the end of the Crimean War and dying a few years after the end of the Great War, he lived for sixty-six years during the most exciting years of music hall. Mystery surrounds some aspects of his life, while others were paraded in detail by the press. At several times in his life, he must have been a wealthy man, but, when he died, he made no provision for his family and friends. His estranged second wife, Annie, died two years after him leaving only a couple of hundred pounds. How was it that he died in Bath when he lived in London and with his elder sister, also a Londoner, at his bedside? Where did all the money go? Stranger still, his demise passed without comment in the theatrical press of the day.

Rudge SistersRudge Sisters

The Rudge sisters, professionally known as Letty Lind, Millie Hylton, Adelaide Astor, Lydia Flopp and Fanny Dango, all hailing from Birmingham, were primarily dancers, but later developed their singing talents, working in pantomime, musical comedy and burlesque, often at the Gaiety in the 1880s and 90s. They were the children of Harry Rudge, a brass worker, and his wife, Elizabeth. To some extent, the origin of their stage names remains obscure, but Letty Lind, seventeen years older than her youngest sister, was sometimes credited with giving her siblings nicknames, some of which may have suggested their noms de theatre.

Murder at the stage doorMurder at the stage door

George Gorin was stabbed to death outside the Canterbury on the evening of 21 June 1889. He was the proprietor of the Letine Troupe consisting of attractive young ladies who gyrated on bicycles while performing tricks. No sooner had he stepped out of his vehicle when he was attacked by Nathaniel Curragh. The severity of the wounds inflicted on Letine allowed him to live for only about half an hour. Once Curragh had stabbed Letine, he shot himself, but the shot was not fatal. One of his daughters had seen the Letine troupe perform and from then on begged her father to allow her to join them. The girl left home, a handsome, well-developed young lady. She was brought back by her parents some twelve months later, a total wreck and died in February 1889.

La Milo

In 1907, the burghers of Coventry commemorated the famous ride of Lady Godiva through the city, which she undertook to try to persuade her husband to remit taxes he had imposed on his tenants. More than twenty applications, mainly from those with a theatrical background, were received for the role. The person chosen to ride the horse through the streets clad in little else than long tresses of cascading hair was a young music hall performer known as “La Milo”. She went on to be a leading exponent of the so-called ‘poses plastiques’ (living statuary) and, although that was at one time thought disreputable, La Milo garnered some adulatory notices.


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.


Western Brothers

Satire is a hazardous business. In 1948, the Western Brothers accepted the invitation to ‘take a crack at the government’ on the BBC show, Music Hall. Topical satire was an integral part of their constantly updated songs, which Kenneth and George drawled in upper-class tones, while attired in monocles and evening dress. Between songs, Kenneth told a story about a succession of interviewees for a job at the Coal Board. “Who do you think got the job? Don’t trouble to work it out. It was the nephew of Mr. Gaitskell.” A furore erupted.


Eugene Stratton

As Eugene Stratton carved a career as a black-faced solo act, he attracted the attention of the composer, Leslie Stuart, who wrote his two best songs, Little Dolly Daydream and The Lily of Laguna. Unfortunately, the two men quarrelled at the races over the merits of one of the horses and their friendship ended. G.H. Elliott took over Stratton’s mantle as the singer of coon ditties. For several years, he was reluctant to perform The Lily of Laguna, arguing that it belonged to Stratton. Eventually, he agreed to include the song in his programme much to the delight of his followers.


Richard Murdoch

Although he starred in two landmark BBC series, Band Waggon and Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, Richard Murdoch never achieved the fame of his co-stars, Arthur Askey in the former and Kenneth Horne in the latter. The reasons are not hard to find. Askey was a naturally funny man. Murdoch was a stooge, albeit a very good one. Horne had an extraordinary career – a businessman first and an entertainer second. Murdoch, who helped to write the scripts of both shows, found that the force of his personality was quashed by that of Horne.


Norman Long

Norman Long, who sang inoffensively comic songs to his own piano accompaniment, had one major claim to fame. He was one of the first entertainers to be heard on the radio – from Marconi House in November 1922 and then from the Savoy Hill studios. Up to that point, his billing matter had been “A song, a smile and a piano.” The punctilious BBC, insisting that a smile could not be heard, changed the billing to “a song, a joke and a piano.” They were, even then, wrong. The smile could be clearly heard on some of the recordings Norman made.


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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Frank Lynne

When Clive Dunn died two years ago, not even his greatest followers can have foreseen the outpouring of public love for a comedy actor who had specialised in dotty old ditherers on television for many years. In their obituaries, the serious newspapers chronicled his theatrical lineage, noting that he was the grandson of the music hall comedian, Frank Lynne. We tell Lynne’s story as well of those of some other relatives of Clive.


by George Charles Beresford,photograph,1911

Walter Sickert

Walter Sickert painted twelve pictures of music hall entertainers. His work is made all the more interesting in that he favoured the less celebrated artistes and the smaller halls. The greatest of the stars Sickert enjoyed was Vesta Victoria and the only West End hall in which he made his sketches was the Oxford. We spotlight one of his favourite minor singers, Minnie Cunningham.


Pipifax and Panlo

The first performers on the bill for the first Royal Command Performance in 1912 were Pipifax and Panlo, a pair of knockabout acrobats. It seemed an odd choice. Hardly anyone had heard of them. But, as favourites of George V, they were the subjects of a true Royal command. They first appeared in England at the Palace Theatre, London, in 1908. The following year, under the bill matter, “a melange of eccentricity,” they performed for Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.


Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow

Francis, Day and Hunter allowed an extraordinary error to appear on the sheet music of Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow. Time and again, they had printed the usual barring clause on covers: “this song may be sung in public without fee or licence, except at music halls and theatres.” On this occasion, however, the clause omitted the words “and theatres.” The slip-up allowed Arthur Roberts to sing the song with countless new choruses at the Gaiety Theatre. Vesta Victoria declared herself “excessively annoyed.”


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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Dick Henderson

For much of the twentieth century, the Henderson family was a minor showbiz dynasty. There was the patriarch, Dick, who, in spite of his northern accent, conquered American audiences; his son, Dickie, the ultimate laid back, nonchalant performer, who appeared in no fewer than seven Royal Variety shows and compered two of them; and his twin sisters, Wyn and Triss, who attracted a following as a pair of glamorous singers and dancers before going their separate ways.


Paul Cinquevalli was a highly successful music hall performer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His juggling caught the popular imagination. In his stage act, lasting twenty minutes or so, Cinquevalli specialised in manipulating objects, which, although widely available, had sophisticated overtones. For example, he might balance a billiard cue vertically on a billiard ball, nestling in a wine glass held in his mouth.

Tom Leamore

Tom Leamore had a keen sense of humour that could see the absurdities and eccentricities of the nuts and bolts of life. Poverty, marriage, the liking for a drop of booze: nothing that could be used missed his observation. The glitzy world of music hall must have been very appealing given his poor background and he spent every spare moment hanging round the halls. He had a keen ear for rhythm and a quick grasp of dance steps, learning all the latest songs. Soon, he was able to find work at minor halls, the start of a wonderful career.

Terry’s Juveniles

Terry’s Juveniles


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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Gus Elen

Gus Elen once harboured a phobia about travelling over deep water. It prevented him from going to America. We do not know why he changed his mind, but he managed the trip in 1907. He was a great success in spite of his Cockney patois, but he never returned. Before the engagement, he suggested it was all down to money. An offer of 200 pounds sterling a week would not lure him, he said, but 300 pounds sterling might. According to one report, that is, in fact, what he earned.

Peggy Pryde

Many music hall enthusiasts will name Peggy Pryde as the daughter of Jenny Hill and add nothing else. But Peggy was a successful performer in her own right. Like so many entertainers of that period, however, her career petered out and no-one knew where or when she died. Music Hall Studies has been digging around and we can at last reveal how Peggy Pryde ended her days.


Frank Leo

Accounts of the careers of the songwriter, Frank Leo, and his wife, Sable Fern, are bound to include mention of an incident in 1903. At the time, Sable was married to Watty Allan. Leo supplied songs for Sable. Rightly or wrongly, Allan believed that the relationship between his wife and Leo, had become intimate and he confronted them both, intending to shoot Leo dead. But he merely succeeded in killing himself.


James Fawn

Although he sang more than 150 songs during the course of his career, James Fawn is now best remembered for just one chorus of one song, Ask a Policeman. In his day, he had a reputation for performing one of the best drunk acts on the music hall stage. He has also been described as the King of the Red-Nose Comics, but he was much more than that.


Sid Plummer

The variety and dance band worlds frequently overlapped. Showmen running bands liked to introduce comedy into their repertoire, so they could be seen to be able to mount a whole show, not just play the latest hits. Some instrumentalists became so well versed in comedy that they began to present individual turns. The legacy of Sid Plummer was a xylophone that looked as though it had taken on a life of its own.


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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Hetty King

Hetty King was a remarkable performer, an unparalleled theatrical phenomenon. She was the only music hall artiste ever to appear in ten successive decades. Her career spanned some 85 years. Her meticulous attention to detail in mannerism, costume and gesture, the perfection of her pantomime and her mesmerising finesse convinced many that she was the finest exponent of male impersonation in music hall history. Hetty had troubled relations with her two greatest rivals for this crown. She always resented and denied any suggestion that she had copied Vesta Tilley in her early period. She appeared to have a more open dislike of little Miss Shields, as she once called Ella Shields.

Max Miller

In a rare interview in 1952, Max Miller said: My comedy is the natural, homely, comfortable sort that brings everyone together. People recognise in my work — or so I hope! — everyday feelings and happenings familiar in their own lives. These days, I go on several times during a performance simply because I like it that way. After all, you can get your applause only once. The intimate contact that can be established seems to me to belong to the very spirit of variety. I like my audiences — and I feel better and work better when I find they like me. This may explain why I enjoy interruptions when I can hit back with a quick gag. But I think it is important to know how far to go with this sort of thing, a technique that may take years to learn.

George Bass

The Lancashire comedian, George Bass, was praised by The Times for being really funny without being offensive. For many years, his stooge was Stanley J. Damerell. But, when they were appearing at the Palace, Burnley, in January 1928, Bass collapsed on stage. Twelve days later, he died, aged 40. Damerell quickly needed another career. He had already written some songs. Now, it was time to build on that talent. He was very successful, his best known song being Lady of Spain, which he had a hand in writing. Others were Lets All Sing Like the Birdies Sing and Rileys Cowshed.

Clapham and Dwyer

From 1926 to 1942, Clapham and Dwyer were a highly successful and archetypal cross-talking comedy double act. Clapham, always wearing a top hat and sporting a monocle, had a capacity for spouting a form of hesitant nonsense. He was slim and gave the air of being slightly aristocratic. It was the job of Dwyer, squat and rotund, to try to understand what he was going on about. Their act was called A Spot of Bother, some of which centred on a cow named Cissie, who, for no reason at all, cropped up in conversation from time to time. The comedy of Clapham and Dwyer now appears to be irritating rather than funny, but, in its day, it struck a public nerve.


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George Formby senior

Of all the great stars of music hall, none was greater than George Formby senior. He really was a comic genius, with a subtle and delicate act, full of perception, sympathetic and gentle, of human frailty, which he himself represented. Severely ill throughout his life with chronic tuberculosis, he was famous for his patter with the audience, sometimes chatting away during half the song, while the orchestra gamely kept going. His stage persona was an unassuming Lancashire lad whose puzzled reaction to the situations, in which he found himself, created ample opportunities for observation and comic inventiveness.

Wilkie Bard

Because of the length of the bill at the first Royal Command Performance, staged a century ago, some acts were severely cut and were unable to do themselves justice, while others, in particular, Wilkie Bard, were allowed to overrun or did so by default. The programme shows he was meant to sing his best known number, I Want to Sing in Opera. In the event, he presented his song scena, The Night Watchman, which was a fairly recent addition to his repertoire.

Elsie and Doris Waters

The extent of the archive of the much-loved double act, Elsie and Doris Waters, became clear when an exhibition was staged at the museum in their home town in West Sussex. On the death of a nephew, his executor offered the archive to the curator, who travelled to London and returned with several suitcases of costumes, scripts, gramophone records, songs, letters, photographs, scripts and posters. They provided the evidence that Elsie and Doris never stopped working and never threw away anything connected with the two Cockney women they created, Gert and Daisy.

The Fox Has Left His Lair

One question we are always being asked is: What was the name of the man featured in the musical huntsmen sketch? The comedian was Denny Willis and the sketch was called The Fox Has Left His Lair. For those who have not seen it, it is pure knockabout comedy with Denny playing an unrehearsed member of a small chorus of men. He gets everything wrong and is frequently knocked to the floor, a much harder accomplishment than it sounds. The humour is based on exquisite timing.


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Katie Lawrence

The words and haunting melody of the chorus of Daisy Bell or A Bicycle Made For Two are universally recognised by young and old alike. However, few people realise that the song, written and composed by Harry Dacre, began life as a humble music hall song. Fewer still remember the young lady who introduced the song to the London stage nearly 120 years ago, initially with little success. Her name was Katie Lawrence. The song was the making of her, but she drifted into obscurity and, when she died in 1913, her body was buried in a common grave with no memorial stone. A sad end to a notable career.

Salvation Army

Probably, one of the main reasons for the dislike by the working man of the Salvation Army was its insistence on a ban of alcohol. The working class man could be persuaded to do many things, but one thing he would not give up was his pint of beer. By attacking music halls, pubs and gin palaces with particular vigour, Salvationists were in effect attacking the male use of leisure. All this is reflected in the many music hall songs about the Salvation Army.

Little Tich

Little Tich, who was four feet six [137 cms], hated being small. He mostly shunned social occasions because of his shortness and he was not best pleased if someone patted him on the head. He once said he would have traded all his celebrity in favour of being of normal stature. Even so, he was not averse to exploiting his shortness on stage. Thankfully, there was more to Little Tich than his tichiness. He danced well [in or out of those big boots], he chose good songs, he had a wide range of quaint and eccentric business and his enunciation was as fine in the theatre as it was in the recording studio.

Beside the Seaside

Traditional seaside entertainment has gone forever. No longer at the end of a sunny summer’s day do we hear the sounds of music and laughter wafting into the warm evening air from Pavilions, Floral Halls and Winter Gardens, which were to be found at seaside resorts around the coast. Yet, in their day, no summer holiday was complete without a visit to a concert party, be it one of the mammoth ones that toured the provinces in the winter or the little open air shows that gave three performances a day. Many top performers started off in seaside shows and they all, without exception, sang the praises of the summer show and the valuable experience they gained.

Ignorance is Bliss

Maurice Winnick ran a highly successful 1930s dance band, but, when the craze faded, he changed his career by buying the British rights of some popular American radio and television programmes. One show started out in America as It Pays to Be Ignorant. Here, it became Ignorance is Bliss, in which each week three nincompoops were given questions of ridiculous simplicity: How long does it take a ship to make a five-day journey? What animal does a blacksmith makes horseshoes for? And for what meal do we wear a dinner jacket?


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G H Elliott

George Elliott is among the best remembered of all music hall artistes. Because of the length of his career, there are still many people who have fond memories of seeing his act. George has left a great body of recorded songs from his first in 1904 to his last in 1960; sadly, very little visual evidence of his act survives; and, apart from his disjointed autobiography, nothing substantial has been written about him. The world into which George was born on 3 November 1882 was very different from our own. Black-faced minstrelsy or coon singing was then considered to be a thoroughly respectable form of music hall and seaside entertainment. George was the only child of a musician, Henry Elliott, and his wife, Alice, a singer, who ran the George and Dragon pub in Rochdale. When George was five, his parents emigrated to America, where his mother found work in vaudeville and his father played in bars to supplement their income.

Lily Morris

When Lily Morris died in 1952, The Times reported that that she did not make any considerable name for herself until the years immediately following the First World War. While that is true, there were many theatre-goers in London who enjoyed her appearances as a mere girl in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Lily was born in the Holborn area of London on 30 September 1882, the daughter of Maurice Crosby, a cigar maker, and his Scottish wife, Mary Ann. It was Maurice who propelled her into music hall. When she was only 11, he lent her his forename, differently spelt, and helped to write some of her early songs. Her first recorded appearances came in 1894. She played several weeks at the South London Palace, sharing one bill with Bessie Bellwood. It is interesting to speculate about a young entertainer whose appearances are still within living memory [Lily] working alongside a star of the generation of the music hall heyday [Bessie].

George Beauchamp

She was a dear little dicky bird. “Chip, chip, chip”, she went. Sweetly, she sang to me till all my money was spent. Then, she went off song. We parted on fighting terms.
She was one of the early birds and I was one of the worms. The man who made the song popular was George Beauchamp, whose life has been relatively easy to research. For once, we have a birth certificate. George was born Sarsfield Patrick Beauchamp on 20 February 1862 in Southwark, the son of a policeman, Alphonsus Beauchamp. Young George started his working life as an errand boy at a printing works in Lambeth and proceeded to work his way up until he eventually became a compositor. He had various jobs in printing, ending up in the composing room of the Morning Post. But this was never the job he wanted. In his spare time, he tried his hand as a comic singer and, towards the end of the 1870s, he took the plunge. He joined a barnstorming company appearing in Shakespeare and melodramas.

Teddy Brown

Born in New York in 1900, Brown started his career as a xylophonist and drummer with bands coming to England in 1925 with Joseph C. Smith and his Orchestra. He led a band at the Cafe de Paris in London and it was with this band that he started appearing in the largest and most prestigious London variety theatres, including the Coliseum and the Palladium from as early as March 1926. Later, he would often appear essentially as a solo act, playing the xylophone and other instruments to a piano accompaniment as well as appearing with his own band.


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G.H. Macdermott

The repertoire of G.H. Macdermott was more political than that of any of the other great music hall stars. In his heyday, music hall concerned itself more with politics than during any other period. Macdermott was part of this trend, but attitudes that were common enough on the halls he took to extremes. In general terms, the halls favoured British imperialism. Macdermott is remembered as the arch-Jingo. In general terms, music hall favoured the Conservatives at the expense of the Liberals, but, whereas most artistes tended to guard against alienating some of their audience by appearing partisan, Macdermott was an unabashed Tory.

Dan Leno

Like the White Rabbit created by Lewis Carroll, the diminutive performer hurried onto the brilliantly lit stage, apparently unaware of the eyes that were fixed upon him. But unlike the White Rabbit, he did not immediately disappear from sight, but came to a sudden halt. It was now his turn to inspect the audience with a curious gaze. Satisfied that he was among friends he rattled through a few lines of a song and then started to describe a series of recent misadventures that set the audience roaring with laughter. Such a response was only to be expected for the artist was Dan Leno, once billed as the funniest man on earth.

Back Your Fancy

Back Your Fancy

Robb Wilton

The world of variety produced some tremendously talented entertainers, one of them, a momentous comic figure, Robb Wilton, now best remembered for his Home Guard sketches that always began: The day war broke out. Before the Second World War, he portrayed bumbling, incompetent officials, a magistrate, perhaps, or a fireman or a police officer. These sketches stand the test of time since dithering bureaucrats, like the poor, will always be with us.


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Harry Rickards

Harry Rickards was the prime mover of the Tivoli Theatre vaudeville circuit in Austraila, but, at the start of his career, he was a comic singer at Wiltons. Almost three years passed before he followed the lions comiques, George Leybourne and Alfred Vance, into the Oxford and Canterbury halls. The 15-minute burlesque by Rickards lampooned four of the most popular singers: the pixie-faced William Horace Lingard; the lean and handsome Leybourne; the elegant Vance; and the buxom Annie Adams, a commanding serio-comic .

Jimmy James

In the annals of the variety theatre, the most famous routine of Jimmy James, Animals in the Box or Elephant in the Box, will live forever. Wielding a cigarette in an apparent attempt to keep himself vertical, Jimmy stood between two stooges, one, tall, stooped, painfully thin and wearing a deerstalker; he was called Bretton Woods; the other, wearing a long overcoat and carrying a shoe-box, was named Hutton Conyers.
Conyers claims to have just returned from Africa with two man-eating lions that he keeps in the box. Jimmy: Are they in there now? Conyers: Yes. Jimmy: I thought I heard some rustling.


Music hall songwriters were harsh in their treatment of the mentally ill. There was little compassion or understanding. But the writers and the entertainers who sang their work reflected the views held by society in general. Medical treatment was not an option. Punishment and incarceration were. It was not until the concept of psychiatry began to take root that changes were seen.
Against this background, mental illness was considered a subject ripe for treatment on the halls if only that it was part of the everyday experience of audiences seeking entertainment on a night out.

Charles Godfrey

Hard working, hard drinking, Charles Godfrey was one of music hall’s true individuals. Now, mostly associated with the timeless After The Ball, he was the originator of the dramatic and patriotic scena. The various obituaries in the theatrical press, apart from praising his great talents, mentioned his great weaknesses. The Entracte summed it up: Genial to a fault, Charles Godfrey was open-handed to everyone and never made provision for that rainy day.


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Wilson, Keppel and Betty

The supreme eccentric dance act of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Wilson, Keppel and Betty still hold sway fifty years after their disbandment. Theirs is a remarkable achievement. Many speech-based comedy routines of that period now appear to be resoundingly awful, their jokes no better than those found in juvenile comics.

But Wilson, Keppel and Betty created something new, the appeal of which seems ageless. They were sand dancers, who established a routine they called Cleopatras Nightmare.

It was carefully constructed over several years. The common view now is that it was immutable just like other music hall and variety acts who were able to travel throughout Britain never needing to change their routines. All that is wrong. Wilson, Keppel and Betty did alter their act, although the changes were mostly cosmetic. Their followers were happy to watch their turn time and time again and demand nothing very much different.

Laura Ormiston Chant

Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant is known above all else for her attack on the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square, which led to it closing for a short period in 1894. This has given her a reputation for being a killjoy enemy of the music hall that she does not deserve. A better reflection of her true views can be found in her only novel, Sellcuts Manager, which she published five years after the Empire furore.

In fact, Mrs Chant was more moderate in her attitude to the music hall than were some of her colleagues in the National Vigilance Association, which organised the campaign against the Empire. Nevertheless, she, more than any other single person, was identified with the campaign. She was a woman and, worse, a woman chosen to be the NVA spokesperson. Whereas the Empire management employed a lawyer to speak for them in the hearings to decide whether their licence should be renewed, Mrs Chant spoke for the other side. She had a formidable reputation as a public speaker and was clearly a better choice than any available man, given that the Association could not or would not employ an expensive lawyer.

Harry Clifton

Almost everyone has heard of Harry Clifton. They know Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green. They use the phrase he popularised, Paddle Your Own Canoe, and they recognise the tune of Work, Boys, Work and Be Contented, even if they have sung different words to it.
But what else? There is astonishingly little about Harry in reference books on Victorian music hall — even in his obituary in The Era. Having encountered Harry in such otherwise unrecorded situations as stage manager to Thomas Youdan of Sheffield and lessee designate of one of the most famous inns in Bristol, we have tried to put some flesh on these very scanty, scattered bones.

Mickie Jacob

Naomi Jacob wrote more than 70 books, including the first biography of Marie Lloyd and several volumes of reminiscences. She freely admitted that she made mistakes and that she could not remember details properly. So, many of the so called facts in her books have to be treated with great caution. However, through Bransby Williams, Georgie Wood and Marguerite Broadfoote, one of her lovers, she met many music hall stars and recorded her memories and impressions of them, uncluttered by such tedious things as facts. These are more trustworthy.

Harry Ford

Harry Ford was without question a star of some magnitude in the music hall firmament. He sang some of the most original and amusing songs the halls had ever heard and his brother, Bert, played a significant supporting role as composer of many of those songs. Even though Harry was at his peak while the likes of Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and George Robey dominated bill-topping positions at the Tivoli, Oxford and Pavilion, he regularly took his place on these bills for several years in the late 1890s and early 1900s and held his own. Indeed, at the London Pavilion in particular, he was a recognised favourite for many years. He frequently did top bills just about everywhere else in London, as well as in the major provincial cities. He was, as The Variety Theatre once described him, a true star of the Metropolis.


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Sam Cowell

Sam Cowell, one of the first stars of what was to become known as music hall, was also one of that fraternity to tour the United States. Others followed and presaged the British Invasion by British pop singers in the early 1960s. Cowell came from a generation of entertainers, who were multi-talented and appeared in farce, melodrama, the Song and Supper rooms and, in the case of Sam, grand opera, La Sonnambula by Bellini.

Songs of the Boer War

In the dying days of the reign of Queen Victoria, audiences thronged into music halls to cheer, at least at first, the latest patriotic song celebrating the bravery of British forces engaged in a conflict being fought many thousands of miles away, the Boer War, in which the British and the Boers sought control of south Africa.

Daisy Bell

Daisy Bell is the best known song of music hall. Groups of youngsters born years after the death of the halls can still belt out the chorus, possibly believing it to be some sort of folk song. The melody lingers on, but the man who wrote it, Harry Dacre, is long forgotten. His songs were sung by, among others, G.H. MacDermott, Dan Leno, G.H. Chirgwin, George Lashwood and Charles Coborn. Determined to profit by his efforts, unlike so many of his song-writing colleagues who died poor, Harry became his own publisher and, in spite of the worst depredations of song pirates, he died a relatively wealthy man.

Fayne and Evans

In 1980, a curious paragraph appeared in The Stage. It announced the death of David Evans in poor circumstances. No-one really knew what that meant, but it concealed a tragedy that lay behind the break-up of one of the most original double acts in variety, Fayne and Evans. No act reached the top quite as quickly as Fayne and Evans. They first appeared in Variety Bandbox in 1948. Come 1951, they were part of the Royal Variety Show; they made a film with the Goons, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan; and they were a supporting act in a Palladium show starring Judy Garland. They deserved success. They were fast, they were sophisticated and they were unique.

Tony Pastor

Going to the theatre had become the top leisure time activity in 1886. In New York alone, there were twenty-eight theatres, nine of them presenting vaudeville. Other large cities also featured multiple venues. Theatres were being built in nearly every city and town that could be reached by a rapidly expanding railroad network. Patrons were exuberant and theatres were filled. Vaudeville was burgeoning. Adjacent to Union Square, the centre of the theatre district in New York, was the 14th Street Theatre of Tony Pastor, known as the top vaudeville house in town. It was the third theatre Tony had operated. He had kept moving uptown to take advantage of the new commercial centres and available customers. Over a period of twenty years, his shrewd business practices, friendly personality and attractive shows allowed Tony [unlike other managers] to prosper and grow.


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Bobbie Kimber

There were no female ventriloquists in variety. At least, there was none of any note, but there were two male vents dressed as women. One was Bobbie Kimber, who flourished for about 15 years, from just before the Second World War until the early 1950s. Most people thought he was a woman and it was front-page news when the “hoax” was revealed. As time went by, Bobbie began to wear female clothing both on- and offstage. In fact, by the end of his life, he was calling himself Roberta.

George Leybourne

During a career lasting 23 years, George Leybourne had a significant influence on the Victorian halls. Leybourne was a man whose songs were sung and whistled on every street corner in the 1860s and 70s, the very first superstar of the halls. For those who know the history of music hall, Leybourne is a name which brings certain information to mind: Lions Comiques; faultless evening dress; a carriage and four; a grand life-style; drink; penury; and, of course, two songs in particular, The Flying Trapeze and Champagne Charlie.

Fred Coyne

Fred Coyne was a minor music hall singer about whom opinions differ. Arthur Roberts recalls him at Turnham’s, later the Metropolitan, Edgware Road, singing “one of the dullest songs that it has ever been my displeasure to listen to in my life;” Jacqueline Bratton dubs him “a minor Lion Comique and comic vocalist of steady, if not phenomenal, popularity;” Harry Preston remembers him as “very dashing in top-hat and frock coat”; while Charles Coborn lists him among “the leading lights of the music hall stage” and admits to using some of his songs in the early part of his own career.

The Halls’ Unacceptable Face

There is a dark side of popular music today. In rap, for instance, some lyrics are vile. Drugs are a problem too. Many Victorians looked on music hall as the more fastidious regard the pop industry now. For them, it was part of a yobbish culture in which the unwashed masses, along with disreputable members of the upper classes, were allowed to run riot, listened to inane songs and were ruined by drink, partly as a result of imitating their ludicrously unworthy heroes. Substitute drugs for drink and not much has changed.


In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.

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Will Evans

Will Evans was not just a pioneering silent film comedian, but also what S.Theodore Felstead in Stars Who Made The Halls described as “a supremely fine artiste and wonderful laughter-maker”. Maurice Willson Disher in his book, Winkles and Champagne, went even further. Referring to Evans’ finest years as around the First World War, when his bungling sketches were at the height of their popularity and he was in the middle of a magnificent run of pantomime successes at Drury Lane, Willson Disher was in little doubt that “in the golden days of his clowning, Will Evans was the funniest comedian on the London stage”.

Free and Easies

There is little romance attached to the free-and-easy. Unlike the song-and-supper room of notorious ancestry, the free-and-easy has been an unremarked and, perhaps, unremarkable staging post in the annals of music hall history. A musical entertainment, dating from the 1830s and lingering for upwards of forty years, it took place in a public house, relying upon amateur performers and the consumption of alcohol to sustain it. Nineteenth-century writers frequently reflected upon how marvellous it was that the glory of the music hall should have evolved, tadpole-like from such inauspicious beginnings.

Jimmy Wheeler

Jimmy Wheeler, the raucous Cockney comedian, bounded confidently out before the diamond and white-tie audience at the Savoy Hotel, London. He wore his usual music hall outfit of loud suit, cheeky Trilby hat and a false moustache made from a piece of dyed rabbit fur, but he had memorised a sedate routine which he considered suitable for high-class cabaret. He told the first three polite jokes and received polite smiles in return. Wheeler’s agent, Billy Marsh, sensed disaster. “I wanted to crawl under the table,” he says. Thirty years in variety, however, had taught Wheeler how to overcome polite smiles. He raised his voice and switched rapidly to the act he was going to give the sailors at the Chatham Empire the following week.

Herbert Campbell

Herbert Campbell was a colossus of music hall, the head of the profession at the time of his death. Any comedian who appeared in the Drury Lane pantomime for 22 years in succession was entitled to be called that. And yet Herbert is a more obscure figure today than he deserves to be. He died just as the recording industry was beginning to widen its repertoire and he made only four sides. In a way, it is ridiculous to say that his great Drury Lane partner, Dan Leno, overshadowed him. Many of their comic effects derived from the fact that it was the other way round. Herbert was vast and Dan was tiny. But when it comes to posthumous acclaim, Dan is the dominating one. He continues to be cited as the greatest of them all, while Herbert is a relatively forgotten figure. And yet his is a fascinating story.

Fred Karno

Although Fred Karno’s mythical ragtime army never did conquer Berlin and rout the Kaiser, their expeditions to the USA during the 1910s proved quite successful and numerous defectors occupied Broadway and Hollywood for decades, much to the gratitude of America and the rest of the world. Karno’s speechless comedians were not the only British invaders welcomed by Americans. Since the closing decades of the nineteenth century, American vaudeville bookers had looked to London for talent. Whenever a performers’ union called a strike or initiated a blacklist or a renegade group of theatre owners threatened to compete with the entrenched powers for vaudeville box office and so created a shortage of home-grown talent and a bidding war for headliners’ services, bookers headed to London. Throughout the twentieth century, comedians and singers from Britain continued to conquer the stage and screen industries in the USA.